`Cosi' deals with familiar themes


March 21, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In Louis Nowra's play Cosi, a group of Melbourne mental patients stage an Italian opera during the Vietnam War era. Despite these eclectic elements, this Australian comedy is less intriguing than it sounds.

Cosi rehashes such obvious themes as the importance of love, especially in wartime, and that old chestnut about psychiatric inmates being saner than those outside (King of Hearts, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, etc.).

Nor is the idea of mental patients staging a play novel. Peter Weiss explored it to greater effect in Marat/Sade, a work that allows for more interpretive latitude than Nowra's naturalistic drama.

The Fell's Point Corner Theatre is mounting the East Coast debut of Cosi, which focuses on a young director named Lewis who is hired to stage a play at a Melbourne asylum. At least one patient, Roy (played by Tony Colavito with too much bathos and bravado), appears to know more about theater than Larry Malkus' reticent, overwhelmed Lewis. Roy is beset with delusions of theatrical grandeur. He insists that the patients produce Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, though few if any can sing -- much less in Italian.

Though Lewis worries that a comic tale of romantic infidelity is frivolous when his friends are out protesting the Vietnam War, he is swayed by Roy's enthusiasm. Lewis' humorless girlfriend (Jane Steffan) remains unconvinced, and before Nowra's play is over, Lewis' love life will turn out to mimic some of the action in Cosi fan tutte, with less amusing consequences.

Director Richard Dean Stover has created a strong sense of ensemble among the seven actors who portray inmates. And while each has done his or her homework fleshing out characters, Patrick Martyn, Laura Cosner and Linda Chambers deserve particular mention for their attention to detail. Eliminating the cast's uneven Australian accents would be an asset, however.

The mental hospital hires Lewis because a social worker (Louis B. Murray) believes that putting on a play will benefit the patients. But predictably, Lewis ends up learning more from the inmates than they learn from him. ("Working with these people has changed you," Lewis' girlfriend says, in case we've missed the point.) That's the kind of play this is -- warm-hearted, reassuring and lacking surprises.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 7. Tickets cost $11 and $12. Call 410-276-7837.

High marks for Center Stage

Now that the staged readings in Center Stage's inaugural First Look series have been completed, I'd like to offer a brief word of congratulation. Not a review, of course; that would be off-limits for work at this preliminary stage.

It's important, however, to comment on the diversity of material in this first series. The plays took theatergoers from the world of a black seamstress in New York at the turn of the 20th century (Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel) to China in 1980 (Warren Leight's No Foreigners Beyond This Point) to modern-day Cuba (Danny Hoch's Til the Break of Dawn). There was even an added attraction, Lisa Kron's Well, about health and the playwright's socially conscious mother.

The casts included such noted New York actors as Evan Handler, Robert Sean Leonard and Seret Scott, plus the multicultural group of hip-hop actors who performed Til the Break of Dawn. Whether or not Center Stage ever mounts full productions of these plays, the theater deserves high marks for nurturing the type of new work that's vital to the future of American theater. And, though attendance was not as high as might have been hoped, it's worth noting that the series attracted theatergoers as diverse as the casts of the plays themselves.

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